TPR Music Artist Forum | In Partnership with SLATT Management
Musicians of all ages are invited to a networking workshop and panelist discussion dedicated to understanding the future of music technology, copyright law, entertainment law, obtaining royalties, and navigation of music streaming services.
321 W. Commerce St, San Antonio, TX 78205
Doors open at 6:30pm.
Panelist discussion will take place at 7:00pm.
Ondrejia Scott | 7:00pm – 7:10pm
Chris Castle | 7:10pm – 7:20pm
Krystal Jones | 7:20pm – 7:30pm
Dr. Steven Parker | 7:30pm – 7:40pm
Linda Bloss-Baum | 7:40pm – 7:50pm
Food and drinks will be provided.
Musicians are welcome to submit an original track to be featured on our TPR Music Artist Forum playlist:
Professional headshots will be offered free of charge by Oscar Moreno.
We will be ending out the night with a special live performance by J. Darius live in the Malú and Carlos Alvarez Theater.
RSVP here to reserve your spot for this free event!
June 2nd 2022 Anaheim California
Hello and thank you. Thanks to the board for this award. President James Weaver. Chair Charlie Sanders. Thanks to David Sanders for help with logistics.
And while I have him here, special thanks to Rick Carnes for his help a few years ago with the University of Georgia Artists Rights Symposium.
I wanted to start out today, by saying it is a great honor to receive this award.
When I look at past recipients and see names like Odetta, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Lena Horne, Hal David, Phil Ramon and Kris Kristofferson, I feel like the protagonist in the Talking Heads song: “How did I get here?”
You see, my original claim to fame is the song Take The Skinheads Bowling. How did the guy that wrote that song end up amongst such musical luminaries?
By way of introduction and explanation:
The song Take the Skinheads Bowling is the first single from a band I started in 1983 in Santa Cruz California.
The band is called Camper Van Beethoven. And it’s still around after 39 years.
I would describe that band as a psychedelic folk-rock garage band but we didn’t have a garage. We actually rehearsed in an attic.
Three flights of stairs… SVT.
Around the same time I started an indie record label to promote and distribute the records of Camper Van Beethoven. We later signed to Virgin Records.
I then started another band called Cracker. This band went on to have platinum hits. You’ve probably heard a few.
I produced albums by groups like Counting Crows.
I ran a recording studio complex for many years.
And in 2012 I began to speak out on behalf of artists at various technology conferences.
In particular I wrote a rather long essay, quite controversial at the time, “Meet the New Boss, Worse Than the Old Boss?”
In this essay I argued that the emerging digital landscape for music was one in which the new bosses (mostly tech companies) would pay nothing up front for our work, and very little on the back-end. I predicted this would shift most of the financial burden and risk onto those who could least afford it, the working class artist.
Unfortunately, my predictions were correct.
Now, It is important to note I am not hostile to technology and technology companies per se. Indeed I graduated with a degree in mathematics from UC Santa Cruz, and before Camper Van Beethoven became my full time job I worked as a computer programmer.
In addition I have had some success as a seed investor in technology startups. Since we are at NAMM I assume you all have heard of Reverb.com?
Technology is important in my life. It’s important to how I make music. Most other artists I know feel the same way. I don’t think technology companies and artists should always be at odds.
So let’s rewind for a second…
“I started a band in my attic (not garage) and later a record label.”
The foundational myth of Silicon Valley is the garage startup that becomes a global brand.
Look at my own startup: Camper Van Beethoven. A few kids in a faded beach town start a band. With a small personal loan from a singing cowboy-true story- we made a record and went from the attic to competing on a global scale in a few short years.
In the 80’s and 90s, this story was replicated, to different degrees, by hundreds of indie rock bands all across The United States.
And this story is not unique to the US or rock music. In1990 while traveling around Morocco I met many musicians who sold their recordings on cassettes in souks all across North Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe.
In 2014 I toured China as a cultural and Intellectual property ambassador for the US State Department. I met a Mongolian folk-rock ensemble that was doing essentially the same thing across central Asia.
If Silicon Valley is widely hailed for its entrepreneurial energy and innovation shouldn’t artists and bands also be praised and seen in the same light? We are certainly as creative.
We generate jobs and substantial economic activity. Some political scientists even think it was really American Pop Music that ended the cold war.
It has always seemed like something worth protecting to me.
Turning our attention back to this room, I see a similar entrepreneurial spirit in the boutique amp, instrument, and music software makers represented here by the National Music Council.
Conversely the big manufacturers and major rights holders represented here have problems that will feel familiar to artists:
The unlicensed use of their intellectual property and designs.
We have a lot in common.
Now this award is ostensibly given to me for my work as an artists rights activist. But I want to put that in a bigger context.
Many of you may have first heard of my efforts on behalf of artists when I filed a class action lawsuit against Spotify for failing to pay self published songwriters.
This, indeed, was a milestone as it gave songwriters the first opportunity in the digital age to extract some concessions from digital services.
Also the 2018 Music Modernization Act may be understood as an unintended consequence of this lawsuit.
But in the big picture, this lawsuit was a minor skirmish in what I call “the long war” to protect the rights of the creators.
And In this long war, I submit, I am just a foot soldier.
I look at the members of the National Music Council, whether music creators, unions, manufacturers, music associations, labels, educators or performing rights organizations and I can think of many many times when I have been aided in my efforts by the good folks from these organizations.
Because ultimately, we have this in common:
We are all fighting to protect our intellectual property
our neighboring rights,
and our designs
We fight to protect them from freeloaders that too often convince policymakers and courts that in the name of “innovation” they should have access to our Intellectual Property without permission or payment.
Sadly this is nothing new. There have always been and there will always be unscrupulous schemers that claim their exploitative business model is somehow “the future.”
The problem is, that in their vision of “the future” they get rich while little of that money trickles down to us. Those that create the intellectual property.
To paraphrase Led Zeppelin: The scam remains the same.
But it is here that the National Music Council has always been helpful. The council and its members provide the long lasting intellectual infrastructure that allows individual artists like myself, to fight.
To fight Today.
To fight 5 years from now
and to fight into the foreseeable future.
I humbly accept this award as someone who has simply followed in the footsteps of other council members and award recipients.
Keep up the good fight my friends,
You are truly on the right side of history.
Series 3 of The Artist Rights Watch Podcast is here! Nik, David, and Chris are joined by attorney Kevin Casini to talk about the latest with the Copyright Royalty Board and mechanical rates in the Phonorecords IV proceeding and discuss alternatives so songwriters are better represented at the CRB compared to the status quo.
ARW Podcast S3E1: Unfreezing Mechanicals show notes
On the this episode of the Artist Rights Watch, Nik, David, and Chris sit down to talk about the recent developments with the CRB and mechanicals with lawyer and advocate, Kevin Casini. The Copyright Royalty Board who herein will more than likely be referred to as the CRB, ‘is a US system of three copyright reality judges who determines rates and terms for copyright statutory licenses and make determinations on distribution of statutory license royalties collected by the US Copyright Office.’ The US mechanical royalties are determined by the CRB and they meet every 5 years to determine the rate. Songwriter groups argued for a higher rate, and the CRB agreed. On March 29, 2022 the CRB agreed to unfreeze the $0.091 mechanical royalty rate which would commence a fight for a new rate in the 2023-2027 period. Over the past few years, there has been numerous criticisms about the constant rule for freezing the mechanical royalty rate. The royalty rate currently is $0.091 which was set back in 2006, and frankly, songwriters are making less money due to economic inflation.
Show Notes and Background Materials
Selected Frozen Mechanicals Comments:
Below are some links about Guest Kevin Casini:
Below are some links for further reading:
Intro/Outro song: “All My Years” by Nik Patel
Many readers participated in the Physical and Download Mechanical Rates Survey that various organizations have sent to their members over the last few weeks. Here are the results of the main questions for which we had 361 respondents who self-selected their participation. (Other answers included comments which we chose not to publish for privacy reasons.).
The results suggest that participants were mostly informed songwriters who had never been asked before what they thought about the issues in the Copyright Royalty Board. We would have to conclude that any of our regular readers would be a bit skewed toward knowledgeable because between the Trichordist, MusicTechPolicy, ARW, Hypebot and Celebrity Access we were probably carrying a very high percentage of the available information on the frozen mechanicals issues.
It also is striking how few respondents said they had ever been asked what they think about any mechanical rates (physical, download, streaming), an important and easily measurable issue. This is something to add to the learning from this episode. It may be that our data is skewed, but even so we didn’t expect that 68% would say they’d never even been asked their opinion. An easy way to find out what people think about something is to ask them.
Great reporting on the frozen mechanicals debacle at the Copyright Royalty Board by Tim Ingham in Music Business Worldwide. It’s in-depth and really covers all the issue in this must-read explainer!
It was a big week for songwriters last week! The Copyright Royalty Judges rejected the frozen mechanicals settlement put forward by the majors in the current rate-setting proceeding at the Copyright Royalty Board thanks in part to the best audience in the world–that would be you! All that hammering on the issue paid off.
We also acknowledge the hard work of all the commenters who spoke straight from the heart and of course songwriter George Johnson who has been fighting the good fight in the Copyright Royalty Board all by himself for years now. We’re also very grateful to the Judges for a well-thought out ruling and a thorough vetting of the issues, George’s many filings and the songwriter public comments.
The question we’ve heard a lot in recent days is where do we go from here? Clearly the answer is “Up” but how far up is the question. We need to be mindful of the economic impact that increased rates will have on independent labels in particular, but at the same time acknowledge that all record companies have gotten the benefit of frozen rates for 16 years and that songwriters have taken it in the shorts for a long, long time.
The Judges seem to be hinting at a deal in their ruling (remembering this is the rate for physical and downloads only (called “Subpart B rates”) and not for Spotify-type streaming which is not affected by these rate changes). Here’s the relevant quote from the ruling:
Commenters advocated application of an inflation adjustment beginning, at a minimum, in 2006. See, e.g. [Songwriters Guild of America] Comments at 4; [Monica] Corton Comments at 4; [Kevin] Casini Comments at 4. According to the proponents of a cost of living adjustment (COLA) applied to the 2006 rates, that adjustment would yield a 2021 royalty rate of $ 0.12 (an upward 31.9% inflation adjustment over the sixteen-year period). See, e.g., SGA Comments at 4. SGA conceded that the COLA extrapolation cannot be considered dispositive on the issue of new rate-setting, but they contended that it does “starkly demonstrate the outrageous unfairness that has been imposed on the music creator community over a period of more than an entire century.”
Step one, then, could be to increase the minimum statutory rate to 12¢ (or 13¢ depending on how you do the math) with customary adjustments for the “long song” formula for songs over 5 minutes.
That increase in the rate would be significant and probably the biggest rate increase ever on a percentage basis for the statutory rate. Will that satisfy everyone? Probably not, but it’s a step forward.
But–and this is a big but–that’s not the end of the story. We do not want to be right back in the same position in a few years time. One way to avoid this is to increase the new rate for inflation every 12 months (called “indexing”) the same way that the webcasting rates are indexed for sound recordings.
The Judges also hint at indexing as a potential solution to avoid just another rate freeze:
[George Johnson] has long advocated inclusion of an inflation index in royalty rates set by the Judges, including the…rates at issue here. In support of his advocacy, GEO has filed 27 pleadings, including motions seeking imposition of an inflation index on section 115 rates and periodic notices of U.S. inflation rates. His plea is bolstered by the many commenters who, almost unanimously, included this suggestion.
So the way this would work is that starting in 2023, the current 9.1¢ rate would be increased to 12¢. After 12 months, the rate would be increased by the Consumer Price Index (the CPI-U rate) for each 12 month period until 2027 when new rates would get decided by the CRB in the next rate proceeding (Phonorecords V). Example: If the CPI is 10%, then the minimum statutory rate would increase to 13.2¢ for the next 12 months. If the CPI in the second year was also 10%, then the 13.2¢ rate would be increased to 14.52¢ and so on until the last year of the period (2027). (Of course we can’t tell today what the CPI will be in 2023.)
Given the Judge’s rejection of the frozen rates, it is very doubtful that there will ever be another freeze, but we have to stay alert and vocal. When the new rates come up, we all have to pay attention.
It’s important to remember that “indexing” to inflation just preserves buying power. Meaning that 12¢ today is what 9.1¢ was worth in 2006. Would it be the fair thing to index all the way back to 1909? Sure, but while the Judges hint at going back further (the “at a minimum” reference), the Judges may not be inclined to go further back than 2006 when the current freeze started, but we’ll see what happens.
We’d be very interested in hearing from you with any questions you have or other ideas for solutions. Obviously, this post is just sharing ideas with our audience and isn’t a formal statement by any particular person or group. There may be a number of proposals coming out and we’ll of course post them on Trichordist.
It must also be said that George Johnson has yet to weigh in on the situation and may very well have a different idea. There’s also some twists and turns to sort out, such as the black box “MOU” (the fourth of its name) but especially the controlled compositions rates that the Judges discussed in some detail (as Judge Barnett said, “The disparity between the static rate and the dynamic market is even more stark when considering the “controlled composition clause.””).
In any event, feel free to comment and we welcome the discussion.
By Chris Castle
We’ve all heard the talking points from Big Radio’s shillery the National Association of Broadcasters about how it’s perfectly fine for American radio stations to deny recording artists and session musicians fair compensation–because exposure, don’t you know. Big radio delivers huge audiences for music and we should all be grateful and work for free for the ever-more-consolidated broadcasting industry.
The other talking point we don’t hear so much from these characters is that media ownership rules are bad and that greater and greater concentration of influence and wealth to control the public airwaves is good. That’s right, it’s not the corporate airwaves, it’s the public’s airwaves. But you wouldn’t know that by looking, right?
So the latest version of this “bigger is better” guff is happening right now at the Federal Communications Commission that licenses radio stations. The NAB is poormouthing to the FCC about how radio and TV stations have trouble competing with Google and Facebook (in particular) for advertising. Oh, no. Google is grinding them into bits? Say it ain’t so!
We know a little bit about what it’s like to have soulless Silicon Valley oligarchs using their political and financial muscle to get a free pass to jack with your livelihood without repercussions from the guys with badges. If Big Tech is really the problem for Big Radio, I’m sure there would be some support for going after them together. But playing nice with others would require the soulless media oligarchs to stop acting like wankers and make a fair deal for artists and musicians. That is not happening. No, no, the solution to the broadcasters’ Google problem is to relax media ownership rules for even MORE concentrated radio ownership, you see. Plus these monopolists want an antitrust exemption for which they have presented no evidence other than even more shillery.
But see what they did there? MusicFirst certainly did and wrote to the FCC to make sure the FCC did, too (letter is here):
The National Association of Broadcasters, in seeking relaxed broadcast radio ownership rules, is asking the FCC to accept arguments directly contrary to those it makes in opposing the American Music Fairness Act.
In fighting the AMFA, the NAB continues to claim airplay has “promotional value” that eliminates the need for radio broadcasters to pay recording artists for the music the stations use to derive millions of advertising dollars. The promotion argument has never been a valid justification for refusing to pay musicians. Such a rationale could swallow all of copyright, as any use of content can be called “promotional.” But even the NAB’s own arguments before the FCC are showing the flaws with its promotion claim.
For example, the NAB argues in this proceeding that radio broadcasters need increased economies of scale to compensate for the significant audience share broadcast radio has lost. Yet, if radio broadcasters have lost so much audience share that they need government intervention, the promotional value they claim to provide recording artists cannot be adequate compensation.
The NAB also applies the promotion claim inconsistently. In addition to its argument about loss of broadcast radio audience, the NAB alleges here that broadcasters need increased economies of scale because online platforms refuse to fairly compensate broadcasters for content the platforms use to derive advertising revenue. The NAB is similarly arguing that platforms’ inadequate compensation warrants passage of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act [the antitrust exemption for monopolists].
The musicFIRST Coalition agrees with the NAB that distributors should adequately compensate content providers. But what is good for the goose must be good for the gander. Online distribution of broadcaster content can also be claimed to be promotional. If the NAB finds inadequate the combination of online promotion and the money online platforms do pay broadcasters, the alleged value of broadcast radio promotion combined with the lack of any money the radio broadcasters pay recording artists cannot possibly be adequate.
The shills at the NAB should try being reasonable just once instead of doing their usual blunt force trauma. Here’s the reality: Nobody is buying what they’re selling because it’s just more snake oil.
This is the third of a three part post on Spotify’s failure to qualify as an “ESG” stock.
[This is an extension of Spotify’s ESG Fail: Environment and Spotify’s ESG Fail: Social. “ESG” is a Wall Street acronym often attributed to Larry Finkat Blackrock that designates a company as suitable for socially conscious investing based on its “Environmental, Social and Governance” business practices. See the Upright Net Impact data model on Spotify’s sustainability score. As of this writing, the last update of Spotify’s Net Impact score was before the Neil Young scandal.]
Spotify has one big governance problem that permeates its governance like a putrid miasma in the abattoir: “Dual-class stock” sometimes referred to as “supervoting” stock. If you’ve never heard the term, buckle up. I wrote an extensive post on this subject for the New York Daily News that you may find interesting.
Dual class stock allows the holders of those shares–invariably the founders of the public company when it was a private company–to control all votes and control all board seats. Frequently this is accomplished by giving the founders a special class of stock that provides 10 votes for every share or something along those lines. The intention is to give the founders dead hand control over their startup in a kind of corporate reproductive right so that no one can interfere with their vision as envoys of innovation sent by the Gods of the Transhuman Singularity. You know, because technology.
Google was one of the first Silicon Valley startups to adopt this capitalization structure and it is consistent with the Silicon Valley venture capital investor belief in infitilism and the Peter Pan syndrome so that the little children may guide us. The problem is that supervoting stock is forever, well after the founders are bald and porky despite their at-home beach volleyball courts and warmed bidets.
Spotify, Facebook and Google each have a problem with “dual class” stock capitalizations. Because regulators allow these companies to operate with this structure favoring insiders, the already concentrated streaming music industry is largely controlled by Daniel Ek, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg. (While Amazon and Apple lack the dual class stock structure, Jeff Bezos has an outsized influence over both streaming and physical carriers. Apple’s influence is far more muted given their refusal to implement payola-driven algorithmic enterprise playlist placement for selection and rotation of music and their concentration on music playback hardware.)
The voting power of Ek, Brin, Page and Zuckerberg in their respective companies makes shareholder votes candidates for the least suspenseful events in commercial history. However, based on market share, Spotify essentially controls the music streaming business. Let’s consider some of the implications for competition of this disfavored capitalization technique.
Commissioner Robert Jackson, formerly of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, summed up the problem:
“[D]ual class” voting typically involves capitalization structures that contain two or more classes of shares—one of which has significantly more voting power than the other. That’s distinct from the more common single-class structure, which gives shareholders equal equity and voting power. In a dual-class structure, public shareholders receive shares with one vote per share, while insiders receive shares that empower them with multiple votes. And some firms [Snap, Inc. and Google Class B shares] have recently issued shares that give ordinary public investors no vote at all.
For most of the modern history of American equity markets, the New York Stock Exchange did not list companies with dual-class voting. That’s because the Exchange’s commitment to corporate democracy and accountability dates back to before the Great Depression. But in the midst of the takeover battles of the 1980s, corporate insiders “who saw their firms as being vulnerable to takeovers began lobbying [the exchanges] to liberalize their rules on shareholder voting rights.” Facing pressure from corporate management and fellow exchanges, the NYSE reversed course, and today permits firms to go public with structures that were once prohibited.
Spotify is the dominant streaming firm and the voting power of Spotify stockholders is concentrated in two men: Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon. Transitively, those two men literally control the music streaming sector through their voting shares, are extending their horizontal reach into the rapidly consolidating podcasting business and aspire soon to enter the audiobooks vertical. Where do they get the money is a question on every artists lips after hearing the Spotify poormouthing and seeing their royalty statements.
The effects of that control may be subtle; for example, Spotify engages in multi-billion dollar stock buybacks and debt offerings, but has yet makes ever more spectacular losses while refusing to exercise pricing power.
So yes, Spotify is starting to look like the kind of Potemkin Village that investment bankers love because they see oodles of the one thing that matters: Fees.
On the political side, let’s see what the company’s campaign contributions tell us:
Spotify has also made a habit out of hiring away government regulators like Regan Smith, the former General Counsel and Associate Register of the US Copyright Office who joined Spotify as head of US public policy (a euphemism for bag person) after drafting all of the regulations for the Mechanical Licensing Collective;
Whether this is enough to trip Spotify up on the abuse of political contributions I don’t know, but the revolving door part certainly does call into question Spotify’s ethics.
It does seem that these are the kinds of facts that should be taken into account when determining Spotify’s ESG score. At this point, it looks like Spotify is an ESG fail–which may require divesting by some of the over 600 mutual funds that hold shares.
By Chris Castle
[This post first appeared on MusicTechSolutions.]
[This post is Part 2 of a three part post on Spotify’s ESG Fail, and is an extension of Spotify’s ESG Fail: Environment. “ESG” is a Wall Street acronym often attributed to Larry Fink at Blackrock that designates a company as suitable for socially conscious investing based on its “Environmental, Social and Governance” business practices. See the Upright Net Impact data model on Spotify’s sustainability score. As of this writing, the last update of Spotify’s Net Impact score was before the Neil Young scandal.]
I started to write this post in the pre-Neil Young era and I almost feel like I could stop with the title. But there’s a lot more to it, so let’s look at the many ways Spotify is a fail on the Social part of ESG.
Before Spotify’s Joe Rogan problem, Spotify had both an ethical supply chain problem and a “fair wage” problem on the music side of its business, which for this post we will limit to fair compensation to its ultimate vendors being artists and songwriters. In fact, Spotify is an example to music-tech entrepreneurs of how not to conduct their business.
Treatment of Songwriters
On the songwriter side of the house, let’s not fall into the mudslinging that is going on over the appeal by Spotify (among others) of the Copyright Royalty Board’s ruling in the mechanical royalty rate setting proceeding known as Phonorecords III. Yes, it’s true that streaming screws songwriters even worse that artists, but not only because Spotify exercised its right of appeal of the Phonorecords III case that was pending during the extensive negotiations of Title I of the Music Modernization Act. (Title I is the whole debacle of the Mechanical Licensing Collective scam and the retroactive copyright infringement safe harbor currently being litigated on Constitutional grounds.)
The main reason that Spotify had the right to appeal available to it after passing the MMA was because the negotiators of Title I didn’t get all of the services to give up their appeal right (called a “waiver”) as a condition of getting the substantial giveaways in the MMA. A waiver would have been entirely appropriate given all the goodies that songwriters gave away in the MMA. When did Noah build the Ark? Before the rain. The negotiators might have gotten that message if they had opened the negotiations to a broader group, but they didn’t so now they’ve got the hot potato no matter how much whinging they do.
Having said that, you will notice that Apple took pity on this egregious oversight and did not appeal the Phonorecords III ruling. You don’t always have to take advantage of your vendor’s negotiating failures, particularly when you are printing money and when being generous would help your vendor keep providing songs. And Mom always told me not to mock the afflicted. Plus it’s good business–take Walmart as an example. Walmart drives a hard bargain, but they leave the vendor enough margin to keep making goods, otherwise the vendor will go under soon or run a business solely to service debt only to go under later. And realize that the decision to be generous is pretty much entirely up to Walmart. Spotify could do the same.
Is being cheap unethical? Is leveraging stupidity unethical? Is trying to recover the costs of the MLC by heavily litigating streaming mechanicals unethical (or unexpected)? Maybe. A great man once said failing to be generous is the most expensive mistake you’ll ever make. So yes, I do think it is unethical although that’s a debatable point. Spotify has not made themselves many friends by taking that course. But what is not debatable is Spotify’s unethical treatment of artists.
Treatment of Artists
The entire streaming royalty model confirms what I call “Ek’s Law” which is related to “Moore’s Law”. Instead of chip speed doubling every 18 months in Moore’s Law, royalties are cut in half every 18 months with Ek’s Law. This reduction over time is an inherent part of the algebra of the streaming business model as I’ve discussed in detail in Arithmetic on the Internet as well as the study I co-authored with Dr. Claudio Feijoo for the World Intellectual Property Organization. These writings have caused a good deal of discussion along with the work of Sharky Laguana about the “Big Pool” or what’s come to be called the “market centric” royalty model.
Dissatisfaction with the market centric model has led to a discussion of the “user-centric” model as an alternative so that fans don’t pay for music they don’t listen to. But it’s also possible that there is no solution to the streaming model because everybody whose getting rich (essentially all Spotify employees and owners of big catalogs) has no intention of changing anything voluntarily.
It would be easy to say “fair is where we end up” and write off Ek’s Law as just a function of the free market. But the market centric model was designed to reward a small number of artists and big catalog owners without letting consumers know what was happening to the money they thought they spent to support the music they loved. As Glenn Peoples wrote last year (Fare Play: Could SoundCloud’s User-Centric Streaming Payouts Catch On?,
When Spotify first negotiated its initial licensing deals with labels in the late 2000s, both sides focused more on how much money the service would take in than the best way to divide it. The idea they settled on, which divides artist payouts based on the overall popularity of recordings, regardless of how they map to individuals’ listening habits, was ‘the simplest system to put together at the time,’ recalls Thomas Hesse, a former Sony Music executive who was involved in those conversations.
In other words, the market centric model was designed behind closed doors and then presented to the world’s artists and musicians as a take it or leave it with an overhyped helping of FOMO.
As we wrote in the WIPO study, the market centric model excludes nonfeatured musicians altogether. These studio musicians and vocalists are cut out of the Spotify streaming riches made off their backs except in two countries and then only because their unions fought like dogs to enforce national laws that require streaming platforms to pay nonfeatured performers.
The other Spotify problem is its global dominance and imposition of largely Anglo-American repertoire in other countries. The company does this for one big reason–they tell a growth story to Wall Street to juice their stock price. In fact, Daniel Ek just did this last week on his Groundhog Day earnings call with stock analysts. For example he said:
The number one thing that we’re stretched for at the moment is more inventory. And that’s why you see us introducing things such as fan and other things. And then long-term with a little bit more horizon, it’s obviously international.
Both user-centric and market-centric are focused on allocating a theoretical revenue “pie” which is so tiny for any one artist (or songwriter) who is not in the top 1 or 5 percent this week that it’s obvious the entire model is bankrupt until it includes the value that makes Daniel Ek into a digital munitions investor–the stock.
Debt and Stock Buybacks
Spotify has taken on substantial levels of debt for a company that makes a profit so infrequently you can say Spotify is unprofitable–which it is on a fully diluted basis in any event. According to its most recent balance sheet, Spotify owes approximately $1.3 billion in long term–secured–debt.
You might ask how a company that has never made a profit qualifies to borrow $1.3 billion and you’d have a point there. But understand this: If Spotify should ever go bankrupt, which in their case would probably be a reorganization bankruptcy, those lenders are going to stand in the secured creditors line and they will get paid in full or nearly in full well before Spotify meets any of its obligations to artists, songwriters, labels and music publishers, aka unsecured creditors.
Did Title I of the Music Modernization Act take care of this exposure for songwriters who are forced to license but have virtually no recourse if the licensee fails to pay and goes bankrupt? Apparently not–but then the lobbyists would say if they’d insisted on actual protection and reform there would have been no bill (pka no bonus).
Right. Because “modernization” (whatever that means).
But to our question here–is it ethical for a company that is totally dependent on creator output to be able to take on debt that pushes the royalties owed to those creators to the back of the bankruptcy lines? I think the answer is no.
Spotify has also engaged in a practice that has become increasingly popular in the era of zero interest rates (or lower bound rates anyway) and quantitative easing: stock buy backs.
Stock buy backs were illegal until the Securities and Exchange Commission changed the law in 1982 with the safe harbor Rule 10b-18. (A prime example of unelected bureaucrats creating major changes in the economy, but that’s a story for another day.)
Stock buy backs are when a company uses the shareholders money to buy outstanding shares of their company and reduce the number of shares trading (aka “the float”). Stock buy backs can be accomplished a few ways such as through a tender offer (a public announcement that the company will buy back x shares at $y for z period of time); open market purchases on the exchange; or buying the shares through direct negotiations, usually with holders of larger blocks of stock.
Vox’s Matt Yglesias sums it up nicely:
A stock buyback is basically a secondary offering in reverse — instead of selling new shares of stock to the public to put more cash on the corporate balance sheet, a cash-rich company expends some of its own funds on buying shares of stock from the public.
Why do companies buy back their own stock? To juice their financials by artificially increasing earnings per share.
Spotify has announced two different repurchase programs since going public according to their annual report for 12/31/21:
Share Repurchase Program On August 20, 2021, [Spotify] announced that the board of directors [controlled by Daniel Ek] had approved a program to repurchase up to $1.0 billion of the Company’s ordinary shares. Repurchases of up to 10,000,000 of the Company’s ordinary shares were authorized at the Company’s general meeting of shareholders on April 21, 2021. The repurchase program will expire on April 21, 2026. The timing and actual number of shares repurchased depends on a variety of factors, including price, general business and market conditions, and alternative investment opportunities. The repurchase program is executed consistent with the Company’s capital allocation strategy of prioritizing investment to grow the business over the long term. The repurchase program does not obligate the Company to acquire any particular amount of ordinary shares, and the repurchase program may be suspended or discontinued at any time at the Company’s discretion. The Company uses current cash and cash equivalents and the cash flow it generates from operations to fund the share repurchase program.
The authorization of the previous share repurchase program, announced on November 5, 2018, expired on April 21, 2021. The total aggregate amount of repurchased shares under that program was 4,366,427 for a total of approximately $572 million.
Is it ethical to take a billion dollars and buy back shares to juice the stock price while fighting over royalties every chance they get and crying poor? I think not.
[Editor Charlie sez: When you read this cautionary tale for artists, remember that like so many other artists we look up to, Astrud never got a penny from radio performances of her records in the US which would have given her a direct payment outside of her recording agreement through SoundExchange.]
“The Girl from Ipanema” was one of the seminal songs of the 1960s. It sold more than five million copies worldwide, popularised bossa nova music around the world and made a superstar of the Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto, who was only 22 when she recorded the track on 18 March 1963.
Yet what should be an uplifting story – celebrating a singer making an extraordinary mark in her first professional engagement – became a sorry tale of how a shy young woman was exploited, manipulated and left broken by a male-dominated music industry full, as she put it, of “wolves posing as sheep”.